Washington’s colleges and universities are wrestling with difficult questions about how far they should go to protect faculty and students from harm, while also guaranteeing free-speech rights.

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OLYMPIA — The hate mail was specific, and it threatened violence.

I know where you live, read one email to one professor. To a student: I know what dorm room you live in. One letter was even mailed directly to the college president’s home.

Five months ago, The Evergreen State College was in the crosshairs of a spate of national political anger triggered by student protests. The students confronted a professor after he raised objections to an event designed to promote racial equity, but which he believed was oppressive.

Students at The Evergreen State College protest against the college’s administration last May. (Lisa Pemberton/The Olympian via AP)
Students at The Evergreen State College protest against the college’s administration last May. (Lisa Pemberton/The Olympian via AP)

An anonymous caller’s threats forced the college to close for three days. State troopers patrolled the grounds. Outspoken students who led the protests were among those targeted by hateful messages. Some faculty members — including the professor who sparked the outrage, as well as others who defended the protesting students — fled their homes, shaken by the experience.

As a new academic year begins, Washington’s colleges and universities are wrestling with difficult questions about how far they should go to protect faculty and students from harm, while also guaranteeing free-speech rights, at a time when the nation is on edge over those same questions.

In Washington, no college has faced as much outside scrutiny as Evergreen, the unconventional public college in Olympia.

Some say colleges must step in when rhetoric turns hateful, as it did at Evergreen. But others argue colleges have a duty to allow everyone to speak freely.

In a speech last month at Georgetown University, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared that free speech is under attack on college campuses, and warned that the Justice Department will take action to support students who believe their free-speech rights have been violated.

Evergreen, meanwhile, wants to prevent any new outside disruptions. It is starting the year with new rules that give it greater control over who can come on campus, driven in part by a protest in June by a conservative, pro-Trump group, Patriot Prayer, that shut down campus for an afternoon. More than 100 counterprotesters responded, and dozens of State Patrol troopers were called in to keep the peace.

Washington state troopers stood between protesters with the conservative group Patriot Prayer and counterprotesters in June at The Evergreen State College. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Washington state troopers stood between protesters with the conservative group Patriot Prayer and counterprotesters in June at The Evergreen State College. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

“We have no intention of keeping people out who have views we don’t like,” said Evergreen President George Bridges. “The issue is threat, harm, potential for violence.”

Bridges is planning to increase the size of the campus police force, but also rewrite the student conduct code to make it clear what students can and can’t do.

“Objectively, the campus is very safe,” he said. “But for some, it doesn’t feel safe.”

Other campuses

This is not the first time that Washington colleges have wrestled with free speech and hate speech on campus. In January, the University of Washington defended the rights of right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos to speak, although the university also condemned his rhetoric. During a clash with counterprotesters, one man was shot. In 2015, Western Washington University suspended classes for a day, then arrested a student in connection with threats made to students of color on a social-media site.

Five years ago, on the other side of the political spectrum, students and faculty at Seattle’s community college campuses vigorously fought a new set of rules that limited “Occupy Wall Street”-style protests, and succeeded in getting some of them amended.

Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) said that conflict should serve as a warning to those who now want to place free-speech restrictions on people with very different political views. (FIRE is a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that works on free-speech issues in education.)

Colleges have to be very careful, he said, that they don’t trample the First Amendment whenever they enact rules that purport to limit the potential for violence. Similar justifications were used to try to limit civil-rights activists in the South during the 1960s.

“Governments were not shy about using their powers to stifle that movement’s speech,” he said.

Evergreen’s new rules on campus protests could run afoul of the Constitution because they prevent groups that practice any form of discrimination from speaking, Cohn said. That language, he said, could bar white supremacists, as well as members of a religious group, from appearing on campus.

Cohn also thinks it was a mistake when 12 Washington state legislators recently asked Washington State University to stop funding the school’s College Republicans, saying the club is sowing “a climate of fear and distrust.”

The club’s then-president, James Allsup, marched in Unite the Right demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., over the summer. Allsup later resigned from the group.

“You can’t say College Democrats are allowed and College Republicans aren’t because their viewpoints are odious to us,” Cohn said, calling the legislators’ letter “blatantly unconstitutional.”

WSU President Kirk Schulz did not agree with the letter either, saying that WSU stands by the independence of student organizations.

But state Rep. Gerry Pollet, the Seattle Democrat who penned the letter, said he thinks Schulz missed the point. Students of color at WSU, he said, have told him they are being targeted because of their race by members of the club.

“There’s a difference between speech and harassment,” he said, and because the club gets student activity fees, that makes its actions a kind of state-supported harassment.

Day of Absence

Evergreen was thrust into the national spotlight in May, after biology professor Bret Weinstein questioned an event called Day of Absence, in which white students who chose to participate were asked to go off campus to discuss race issues, while students of color remained on campus.

Weinstein called the event “a show of force, and an act of oppression.” He was confronted outside his classroom by at least 50 students, who called him a racist and demanded he be fired. Later, protesting students took over the campus library and held the president, Bridges, there for several hours.

Attending the informal gathering at The Evergreen State College on Sept. 27 was former biology professor Bret Weinstein, center, who was the focus of a student protest last spring.  (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Attending the informal gathering at The Evergreen State College on Sept. 27 was former biology professor Bret Weinstein, center, who was the focus of a student protest last spring. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

Video of the incidents went viral, and Weinstein was interviewed by Fox News’ political commentator Tucker Carlson, under the banner “Campus Craziness.” Then the threats of violence began pouring in via social media.

The three-day closure started on June 1, after an anonymous caller said he was armed and en route to campus. A New Jersey man was eventually charged.

This spring, 80 students were disciplined, receiving sanctions that included formal warnings, community service, probation and suspension. Evergreen spokesman Zach Powers said he could not say how many of those students were disciplined as a result of the protests.

Weinstein later indicated an intent to sue the college for $3.85 million, with his attorney saying Evergreen had failed to protect Weinstein and his wife, biology professor Heather Heying, “as targets for their protected activity.” Last month, the couple resigned their teaching posts after accepting a settlement of $450,000, plus $50,000 for attorney fees.

Yet Weinstein showed up on the Olympia campus last week, attending an informal, student- and faculty-led convocation. He stood on the edge of a circle of students and listened to the speeches for about an hour. He said he had come to hear the students’ “revisionist history” of the spring’s events.

A few students walked up to him and shook his hand. Most ignored him.

Earlier in September, Weinstein was interviewed by political commentator Dave Rubin in a forum at Harvard University, where he said free speech was of vital importance at a time when society is going through a period of intense change.

“People have to be able to speak,” Weinstein said. “The problem is the threshold of offense — people are offended so quickly, they never get around to hearing the part they need to hear.”

Targeted by right wing?

Many faculty members say they’re relieved Weinstein has left his teaching post.

Anne Fischel, a professor of media and community studies, said Weinstein’s criticisms aimed to silence people who were speaking up about ongoing problems of racism and the need for greater diversity among faculty.

Fischel, who has taught at Evergreen since the 1980s, remembers calls for equity and diversity training dating to more than 30 years. In all that time, she said, little has been done.

Students, many of whom asked to remain anonymous, say their efforts to draw attention to examples of “low-grade racism” were stymied by the lack of structure at the college, which gives no grades and has no department heads.

Bridges, the college president, acknowledges there are problems. “I think we’ve got a generation of students who are really smart, and really frustrated, and don’t know how to work the system,” he said.

Some faculty members fear more is to come from right-wing critics, who they believe seized upon Evergreen as part of a larger effort to demonize small, liberal-arts colleges, which the critics see as a bastion of liberal thought.

Bridges shares that worry. The new rules to protect Evergreen are “driven in part by white supremacists in Charlottesville, who said, ‘We’re coming, get ready,’ ” he said.

Evergreen’s new free-speech rules prohibit non-college groups from using the school’s public forum areas during specific times of the year, and require those groups to provide, with some exceptions, at least 15 days’ notice to the college if more than 50 people are expected to participate.

Future expectations

Students say they’re proud of the role they played in helping their fellow students deal with the crisis last spring. Going forward, they are craving a bigger role in helping right the ship.

During the “reconvocation” event on Sept. 27, several hundred students and faculty assembled around the central square in campus for two hours of speeches, song, chants and poetry.

At the end, the students formed a big circle. Then, to the beat of a drum, the circle doubled back, allowing every person in line to greet one another.

Senior Vanlyn Turner-Ramsay said she’s disappointed that the college’s administrative leaders haven’t done more to heal the wounds. She said she still feels unsafe on campus, and she is dismayed the media have portrayed Evergreen students as angry, vengeful and violent.

The reconvocation, she said, is what Evergreen is really all about.

“We are a community of people who care about each other,” she said, gesturing to the students and faculty hugging and chatting as they welcomed each other with handshakes, fist bumps and laughter. “This is what that looks like.”